HC Deb 02 July 1834 vol 24 cc1088-93

Mr. George Wood moved the Order of the Day for the House to resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House on the Universities' Admission He wished the Bill to be committed pro formâ in order that certain Amendments might be inserted and printed.

Sir George Murray

said, that before the Bill went into Committee, he was desirous to make a few observations. He was as anxious as any man to remove as much as possible every grievance which pressed upon any class of his Majesty's subjects on the ground of religious distinctions. His whole conduct through life had been marked with this principle—he had voted for the abolition of the Corporation and Test Acts, and had given his assent to the removal of the disqualifications affecting the Roman Catholic subjects of the realm. After his accession to the office of Secretary for the colonies, he had extended the principle of non-exclusion to the Universities of York, in Upper Canada, and of Montreal, admitting thereto every religious sect without any inquiry whatever. With these proofs of his opinions, it could not be denied, that he was a friend to religious liberty. He thought, that the hon. member for South Lancashire, who had brought forward the present measure, had failed to show the practical application of the principle to the object which he had in view; and, without meaning any disrespect to the hon. Member, he must say, that the Bill appeared to him to be unintelligible and contradictory. Such a measure was much too extensive an undertaking for any individual member of the Legislature, and he should rather have wished that his Majesty's Government would have themselves taken up this important subject, and based a measure for the adoption of the House upon the terms of the petitions which had been presented to the other House of Parliament by the Prime Minister, and to this House by a right hon. Gentleman, now Secretary for the Colonies, from certain Members of the University of Cambridge, in favour of the admission of Dissenters into that and the other University. He thought, that the difficulty in the matter arose from the necessity for religious instruction in the University, which course of instruction must necessarily be confined to the established religion of the country. From this circumstance arose the practical difficulty of applying in this instance those liberal principles which he had ever entertained, and was anxious to adopt. As a member of the Church of Scotland, he stood himself in the situation of a Dissenter in this country, and therefore it could not be doubted, that he was desirous that the privileges of the English Universities should be opened to his fellow-countrymen in common with other Dissenters, and he should be glad if degrees could be attained by them as a matter of honour; but he certainly was not willing that Dissenters should obtain a power in the internal government of the Universities, which power, in his judgment, ought to rest with the members of the Established Church. He should also be glad if it were possible that Dissenters and members of the Church of Scotland could be admitted to them for the purposes of education, and at the same time their scruples relieved by a dispensation with the necessity for their attendance in chapel, and upon the college course of religious instruction; but he was at a loss to know how this could be effected consistently with the constitution of the Universities of this country. The subject was one of great difficulty, and if it were to be interfered with, it ought to have been taken up by his Majesty's Government, in the same manner as the equally difficult question of Roman Catholic Emancipation had been taken up by their predecessors in office. If they had adopted that course, and had taken the opinions of such members of the Universities as were in favour, as well as of those who were opposed to the admission of Dissenters, a measure acceptable to all might by modifying those opinions have been framed. If he could bring himself to think, that the present Bill could by possibility be converted in Committee into such a measure, his objections to it would be at once removed. He, however, should not impede the House now going into Committee on it, and he trusted the hon. Gentleman who had introduced it, would see that he (Sir George Murray) could not dispense with this, the first opportunity afforded him, of taking away a supposition that had gone forth, that he wished to obstruct the removal of the disabilities under which, in this respect, the Dissenters laboured. The statement which he had made elsewhere on this subject, had been founded upon the supposition, that the Government contemplated the introduction of a measure of relief to the Dissenters—a supposition which owed its origin to the fact of the presentation of the petitions to which he had adverted by the Prime Minister and the right hon. Secretary for the Colonies.

The Lord Advocate

said: "I have listened with feelings of pain and regret to the speech of the right hon. member for Perthshire. He has said, that he has considered himself as a Dissenter, as all Presbyterians of the Scotch Church must do in England, although they are members of the Established Church in Scotland, and yet that he voted against the Bill for the admission of Dissenters into the English Universities, for reasons which, although they have been detailed at very considerable length, no person could have expected to hear come from an hon. Member who avows himself to be a Dissenter, and a person most anxious to remove all religious distinctions. Every observation which the hon. Member has made, justifies those Members from Scotland who voted for the second reading of this Bill; while even, if agreed to in their full extent, they make a vote given by a Scotch Presbyterian Member against the second reading of the Bill more difficult to explain. By voting for the second reading, the House does no more than approve of the principles of a Bill. Has the right hon. Member stated, that he disapproves of the principles of the Bill in any respect, or that he did not understand it? All his observations tend to the strongest approbation of the principles of the Bill. He says, he approved of the Cambridge petition. It is not surprising, that those Members who opposed so strongly and so eloquently all the sentiments contained in the Cambridge petition, should vote against the second reading of the Bill; for the principles of this Bill differ in no respect from that petition. The details of the Bill may differ in some respects. That was the strongest reason for voting for the second reading, and for allowing the Bill to go into Committee. All the supporters of the Cambridge petition will then have an opportunity of proposing such alterations as will make the provisions of the Bill agree with their views of that petition. But the House has been told, that a Bill brought in by his Majesty's Ministers, founded on the principles of the Cambridge petition, would have received the support of the right hon. member for Perthshire. This is carrying regard for his Majesty's Ministers very far indeed. This Bill was introduced in the month of April by my hon. friend, the member for South Lancashire. It could not be brought forward by any Member more entitled to the re- spect and regard of the House, whether holding office or not. So far from being opposed by his Majesty's Ministers, it is supported by them, and the second reading was carried by a large majority. No person can accuse the right hon. member for Perthshire of undue deference to Ministers, yet it would surely amount to that to vote against a Bill the principle of which Dissenters were bound to support, because Ministers did not introduce it. According to that, a measure, however good, and however much it accords with the feelings of Members of this House, is to receive a direct negative because it is not brought forward by Ministers." He (the Lord Advocate) was unwilling to detain the House at that hour, and he trusted that the Bill when reprinted, would have undergone such alterations as would remove even the more minute objections which had been urged against it, which it was not unreasonable to expect might come from zealous members of the Church of England. Their support it was most important to obtain. Their opposition might arise from the most honourable and conscientious views, deeply imprinted upon their minds by early education; but he trusted there would not be many Representatives from Scotland who regarded themselves as Dissenters here, as the right hon. member for Perthshire said he did, who would oppose the Bill on such grounds.

The House resolved itself into Committee on the Bill.

Mr. George W. Wood moved the insertion of certain Amendments pro formâ.

The Speaker

said, that before the Amendments which had just been proposed by the hon. member for South Lancashire were put to the Committee, he was sure the Committee (feeling that he as yet had had no opportunity afforded him for expressing the sentiments he entertained with respect to this Bill, and being also aware, that this would be his only opportunity) would favour him, even at the late hour which had now arrived, with its attention on the present occasion. The observations which he wished to make had no reference to the Amendments proposed by the hon. Member, and upon them he would give the Committee no trouble. His objections, he fairly confessed, were not to the Amendments merely, but to the principle of the Bill. That principle could not be carried into effect without leaving his objections unaltered and unalterable. He believed, the principle would be destructive to the two Universities as they now stood, and would be useless for any good purpose to the Dissenters themselves. He could not but feel convinced, that if this Bill was rendered efficient for the purpose it had in view, it would destroy the whole system at present prevailing in the two Universities, and would introduce either utter religious indifference, or constant acrimonious religious strife. With those feelings pervading his mind, the Committee would not be surprised when he stated that he entertained an unconquerable objection to this Bill. It was but due to the University he had the honour to represent and to himself, that he should avail himself of this the only opportunity afforded him of giving expression to those feelings; and though, perhaps, he might in the judgment of many hon. Members, be thought to be committing an act of imprudence by the course he had pursued, yet he thought it more manly to declare on the present occasion the sentiments he entertained. He was relieved from the necessity of going further into the subject by being able to express his full and entire concurrence in the sentiments which, on a former occasion, had been conveyed to the House in the speech of his right hon. colleague, and in the speeches of the other hon. Members who represented the other University. Having said thus much, he had to thank the Committee for the attention with which they had listened to him, and to repeat that he felt he should not have done his duty either to the University or to himself, if even at this late hour (four o'clock) he had not endeavoured to impress upon the House what was his conscientious opinion of the measure now under its consideration.

The Amendments were agreed to, and the Bill went through Committee pro formâ

The House resumed.